Dr. Riad Hartani is, uh, accomplished. He holds— deep breath in!—two engineering degrees, a masters degree, a doctorate and a post-doc in computer science from the University of Paris and University of California, Berkeley (all with highest honors), and he completed the executive education in business at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Deep breath out.
In addition, he’s been part of the technology startup scene for more than twenty years. Mostly, he works in mobile communications and artificial intelligence, and he’s worked as a founder, key executive, and investor.
He’s worked with companies all over the world: Silicon Valley, Vancouver, his native Algeria, Japan, the U.S., Hong Kong, China, and all over Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
“Working around the world led me to get deep into high-risk tech ventures,” he says, “with the goal of building something meaningful.”
His primary motivation there is to look for local impacts of important technologies and discern how best to deploy them at a wider scale.
Over 20 years, his work has taken him to a lot of places. He’s met different people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Thematically, he began to ask the question: how can everyone work together, and what can we learn from that?
Riad was born and grew up in northern Africa, in the city of Algiers. He said that once he left, which happened when he was fairly young, he didn’t come back much for quite some time.
“I did not really spend time there. I don’t know if it’s relevant, but that’s the real story. Africa is big and very diverse, but it is a different part of the world, and has very different problems in the rest of the world that are not being solved, even with the development happening elsewhere.”
The lightbulb moment was that all those questions he was asking about the interconnectedness of Europe, Asia, North America, the middle East, his home continent was being skipped over almost completely.
This was in 2013. He realized that he and his peers were working at the bleeding edge of technology in places like Japan, South Korea, and the Silicon Valley.
“But a lot of that had little impact on this part of the world,” he says, speaking to me from a cafe in Algiers. “So I thought maybe the work I’ve done elsewhere might be leveraged and useful.”
For instance, in the last few years, Riad has been involved in advanced space programs relating to internet broadband services. He said there are 10–15,000 new low-earth satellites being launched by companies like Space X and Amazon, with a planned deployment of $30–40 billion in investment to fuel the launches, over the next decade.
Now he’s wondering if there’s any way for people in other parts of the world to use the same satellite constellations—which are groups of satellites that work together to achieve near-global coverage.
“I didn’t have this type of thinking ten or fifteen years ago. Now, I am focused on it. I want other parts of the world to be able to take advantage of it. So when I get into developing and building the tech, I look at the benefit for a broader set of society.”
But he realized there was a big problem to be solved in deploying bleeding-edge technologies in the countries of Africa, where there are different risks, different problems, different streams of capital, and different opportunities.
At the same time, it’s a big place, and the population (as well as commerce) is expanding rapidly. In fact, it is the fastest-growing place on earth.
For Riad, the question was simple: What sort of model for technology deployment would work in this part of the world? And how could he leverage what he’d learned in Silicon Valley and elsewhere?
“As soon as you jump from a tech-savvy part of the world,” Riad says, “to this part of the world, you’re almost on a different planet.” He asked himself why there was such stark disparity: “Why are we having very different planets on the same planet?”
“I became uneasy that we talk about very advanced technologies to change the world,” Riad says, “but other people don’t have enough to eat and drink.”
He thinks one issue is that technologically advanced societies encourage self-development, and when the tech isn’t there, the humans aren’t able to experiment with it and develop it further.
“We live in a digital informational society,” Riad says. “Young people grow up with all kinds of information, but they need to be able to apply it, experiment with it, and leverage it for their own societies.”
So he knew he needed find a way to make those technologies widely available to young people in developing nations.
African countries are currently experiencing, on average, a 2–3% population growth rate increase, year over year.
That may not seem like much, but you can compare it with China (0.6%), Canada (1.2%), Japan (–0.2%), India (1.1%), the U.S. (0.7%), or Italy (–0.1%).
And by comparison: Kenya (2.5%), Algeria (1.7%), Sudan (2.4%), Djibouti (1.5%), Ethiopia (2.5%).
“There is a very high proportion of young people,” Riad says. “So we needed to find a way to leverage these technologies, basically to make things better. I didn’t have the answer, obviously. So my approach was to experiment.”
He spent about five years testing various models, asking the question: If you look at the whole movement of decentralized knowledge, and the ability to learn and develop knowledge, how can that be made to happen in local practice?
“Technologies will evolve very fast,” he says. “We’ve got to find a way to advance and keep moving so that the whole world benefits.”
He started working with young people in places like Djibouti, Tunisia, Algeria, Ethiopia, and Kenya on developing startup business models and fintech applications, with the goal and benefit of helping them stay at the technology edge.
He also wanted to look at how smart cities get built. “In cities in Africa, what does that mean? They have a totally different definition of a smart city,” Riad says.
He now says he is making all his bets on the younger generation that’s coming up. He sees them starting with new rules of the game to leverage worldwide technologies and build businesses.
“When you are 20 years old, and you’ve learned something, you need to have the confidence that you can succeed,” he says.
So he’s working with policymakers to bring young innovators and entrepreneurs together with policy-makers to put road maps together on precisely how to evolve the cities, which has given them a series of specific problems to solve around transportation mobility, energy optimization, water consumption, and so on.
As Riad and most other people working in this space know, the best work in developing nations is done by people within those nations. Well-meaning but ill-informed Westerners can parachute in and try to deploy capital, but although their intentions are good, they can often end up creating new problems or even doing harm.
“We want the people who live in these cities to provide the solutions,” Riad says. “So the one who succeeds plays a role model for the one that follows.”
He picks problems he thinks can be solved, and then he selects teams —mostly composed of students—at a stage where they’re either just finishing their studies, or sometimes a few years out of school. The teams are multidisciplinary, he says: engineering, computer scientists, legal background, architects, psychology, sociologists. The reason he works with younger workers and students is that their generation has the advantage of being able to access information and learn from it, and they’re not yet into automated systems work where they presume it’s either too late or too difficult.
And once they have started developing their business ideas, Riad works with them to grow a team, finance the business, and start drawing revenue from the projects.
“I’ve seen some successes,” Riad says, “and for me it validated the thesis, which is, if you can promote confidence in people at the right time, with the right approach, it gives a chance for them to develop.”
“You have to do it with enough of a critical mass, and you can see results.”
Riad says they are fairly general problems, the same problems as in other cities— transportation, resources, energy — but in Africa, you have to solve them differently. And while the technologies might not be different, the approach must be, because it’s all about building confidence, and a legacy of capacity: empowering young people to build businesses, believe in themselves, and solve issues.
It becomes even more obvious how necessary Riad’s work is when you project forward into the future. In 20 years, there will be more than two billion people living in Africa.
Typically, the students he works with are seen as fairly successful.
“They went to school and finished school. These types of people tend to leave their countries,” Riad says. “Not just in Africa but everywhere in the world.”
It is a problem everywhere. I’ve heard it from my South African friends, and we heard it from Croatians when we visited there too.
Riad says something is broken at the big-picture level with this, because if your best people always leave, there’s not much for a country to do.
“So how do we get people to stay and do? Or even leave, to learn, but then come back and do,” he says.
He starts at the university level, getting to know folks there, educating them about the possibilities, and then works with them on building businesses post-schooling.
I ask him about the issue of deploying capital in these regions, and my understanding that it can do more harm than good.
“Impact investing is a very good thing to do, but it’s easier said than done,” he says. “I think one has to jump into the real problem before one goes to solve it. I thought a lot about that before I got involved.”
And he says that with impact investing, it has to be win-win for all. There’s no point in solving a climate issue in northern Europe if it just gets ten times worse somewhere in Africa.
“The major problems of the world are: climate, food, water. You have to prioritize them, but the priorities would be different based on who ranked them,” he says.
He also references immigration, which often begins with people leaving places where they think they don’t have a future.
“Maybe one way to approach it,” he says, “is to make those places better.”
When Riad travels, he likes to go to remote places where he can stay with locals. One of his favorite things is discovering different types of music. In Africa, every village has its own type of music and bands.
“You jump from village to village,” he says, “and they have totally different instruments to play music, so you wonder how they can be so close to each other but so different from each other. To me, music is important because that’s the way people express things. That’s the best way to learn about people.”
One of his travels took him to the middle of the desert, and the vastness of the place, along with the vastness of that sky above him full of satellites, stars, and empty space had him questioning: How could people live here? How could they survive in the desert? What did they eat, how did they adapt nature to themselves, and what music did they make?
“The theme here,” Riad says “is that it’s a big world. The more you know, the less you really know.”
Riad Hartani is a tech founder and entrepreneur. He lives all over the world, but most often in Vancouver, San Francisco, Algiers, and Hong Kong.